Dispatches from TEDx Vancouver: Terry Pearson’s Personalizing Diagnostic Medicine

TEDxVancouver made enjoyed a sold out come back after hitting the pause button for a year. It’s fifth incarnation packed the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Theatre. This years theme TILT. was intended to challenge the status quo. It’s about challenging our ingrained patterns of attitude and behaviour.

Jordan Kallman, president of TEDxVancouver shared “something remarkable happens when you face your fears and test your limits, whether it’s leaping from an airplane at ten thousand feet or that last deep inhale before taking the stage. TILT transpires the moment you make the move. You plunge away from what is comfortable to conquer barriers – real and imagined. This year’s event experience is designed to amplify perspective shifts that occur when we choose to tilt,” says.

Tilting through the lens of innovation, technology, entrepreneurship, and the human connection two speakers caught my attention with stories I was excited about exploring and sharing. This is about people turning ideas into action.

This first “dispatch” is from a conversation with Dr. Terry Pearson. Pearson is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at the University of Victoria. His career includes being recruited to Nairobi, Kenya and working as a research scientist at the then newly formed International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases. For more than 35 years his research has focused on tropical diseases, mainly African sleeping sickness, and on diagnosis of disease.

Terry Pearson 2-DawnStenzelphotography

He’s made the leap from full-time academic and researcher into the world of entrepreneurship and is co-founder of SISCAPA Assay Technologies, Inc. His company is focusing on the development of diagnostic tests for personalized medicine.  Pearson talked about “the biggest challenge has been learning and understanding business. How it works. In some ways it’s humbling. In the research end of things we’re allowed to have crazy wild ideas and to go ahead and explore them with the resources we have at hand. When the business world imposes it’s focus, demands of cost effectiveness, and need for practicality on you, it’s like wearing two opposing hats.”

This process and product has been 12 years in development. They decided to form the company 3 years ago. Recognizing that relying on grants wasn’t going to scale their research into a commercial opportunity, “entrepreneurship became a necessity.” Pearson added “what we really wanted to do was apply our academic technological background to the real world, and make it work. Simple as that.”

Crowd in Theatre 1 -JonathanEvans

Patience, perseverance and timing often comes into play when commercializing a lot of technology, as Pearson acknowledged “personalized medicine is really a buzzword these days.” The growing number of adverse drug reactions and drug deaths in the US and Canada, and the fact drugs can work on some people and not others is feeding the conversation. “There’s a real push from pharmaceutical and medical device companies trying to make it work. But the diagnostic end of medicine has been underserved and that’s what we do, he added.”

They are looking at biomarkers in human blood for diagnostic purposes to help individuals establish key baselines for common procedures such as testing cholesterol levels or prostate cancer. Pearson indicated “many people are already in a range above or below what’s deemed the standard baseline for their age and gender. We want to send up a flag when someone deviates outside their personal range.”

The idea is to run these individual tests weekly, monthly, or whatever frequency works for you from home, and mail it in. Pearson said “it’s a better way of monitoring your personal levels and for a large number of things which right now you can’t do. It currently costs $30.00-$40.00 just for a prostate test. We want to do test for 25 things, and do it many  times. The technology we’ve developed allows us to do that.”

It’s worth noting Pearson suggests that barely 2% of healthcare budgets are spent on diagnostics, while the rest goes to treatment. “By personalizing diagnostic medicine we think more investment upfront in early and more effective diagnosis will help save on this exorbitant amount going to treatment.”

Looking to the future It’s very possible this type of testing could be integrated with a smartphone, much like the Blood Glucose monitor.  How we manage our health is changing at a speed incomprehensible to many. Pearson is at the forefront of putting the individual at the centre of the conversation about wellness. It’s tough arguing with his overarching purpose being that “you shouldn’t be compared to the crowd, you should be compared to yourself.”

Photographer credits Dawn Stenzel and Jonathan Evans

John Gray

John Gray

John Gray is the co-founder and CEO of Mentionmapp. As a writer, John cares about keeping the humanity in our stories and conversations about technology. He has a B.Ap.Sc. in Communications and a B.A. in English, both from Simon Fraser University.